No British officer was more reviled by Patriots in the South during the American Revolution than Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton. Based partly on fact and partly on myth, Tarleton’s name became synonymous with brutality to many Americans. Another British officer, although less infamous, earned a similar reputation for his actions in South Carolina in 1780. Maj. James Wemyss is most often remembered for the expedition that he led through the Peedee in September 1780. Dr. Robert Bass, who authored biographies on Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, and Banastre Tarleton, referred to Major Wemyss as “a demon” and declared that “Wemyss became the second most hated man in the British army.” Walter Edgar, a former Professor of History at The University of South Carolina and author of Partisans and Redcoats: The Southern Conflict That Turned the Tide of the American Revolution, echoed the sentiments of Dr. Bass, declaring that Wemyss, after Tarleton, was the most despised British officer in South Carolina.
The opinion that James Wemyss was a ruthless officer is not merely that of modern era historians, but one also shared by his contemporaries. In a letter from American Brig. Gen. H.W. Harrington to British Lt. Col. George Turnbull, Harrington refers to the British major’s raid into the region and cites the “wanton cruelties committed on Peedee by Major Wemyss” and adds that “Major Wemyss here played the petty tyrant.”Who was James Wemyss? Was he a rogue officer intent on unleashing his own brand of barbarism on the inhabitants of South Carolina who supported the patriot cause or was he simply following orders from his superior officers?
James Wemyss was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1748. His military career began at an early age when he was commissioned an ensign in the British Army at the age of seventeen. He had served nine years in the army before arriving in Boston in 1775 as a captain in the 40th Regiment of Foot. Wemyss served in several staff positions and took part in the British campaign on Long Island, New York. In 1777, he was promoted to major and given the command of the Queen’s Rangers, a unit more closely associated with his successor, Lt. Col. John Simcoe. He led the Rangers for a little over five months and the unit distinguished itself at the Battle of Brandywine in September and at the Battle of Germantown the following month, where Wemyss was slightly wounded. Under his command, the Rangers earned a reputation for gallantry, as a notice printed in The Pennsylvania Ledger of December 3, 1777 proclaimed: “No regiment in the army has gained more honour this campaign than Major Wemys’s [sic] (or the Queens) Rangers: they have been engaged in every principal service, and behaved nobly, indeed most of the officers have been wounded since we took the field in Philadelphia.”
In 1778, Wemyss became a major of the 63rd Foot and the following year his regiment sailed with Sir Henry Clinton’s expedition to South Carolina. After the surrender of the American army at Charleston, he was ordered to march part of the 63rd Regiment sixty miles up the coast to Georgetown to bring order to the Williamsburg district and to help form a regiment of Loyalist militia. Wemyss found few men worthy of leading the Loyalist cause in the surrounding area. Patriot sympathies in the region were strong and their growing militia discouraged the Tories from turning out in sufficient numbers.
While in Georgetown, Wemyss wrote a letter to Gen. Charles Cornwallis in which he referred to the “principal inhabitants” as the most violent and persecuting rebels that now professed a desire to become good subjects only to save their estates. He thought that their motives were suspect and they should be discouraged from being allowed to take an oath of loyalty and suggested more serious punishment for the leaders of the community. He proposed that the paroles of ten or twelve of these men should be altered and instead of being allowed to remain on their estates, they should be sent to the islands. Wemyss believed that this action would encourage those loyal to the Crown to “take every method of carrying on the purposes of the Government.”
In his reply to Wemyss, Cornwallis agreed with his proposal: “I would have you by all means seize all violent and persecuting rebels and send them directly on parole to the islands unless there are a few, very notorious for acts of cruelty, who might be sent under a guard of militia to the Provost’s at Charleston.” Cornwallis added harsher terms: “All those who are thought by our friends worthy to be trusted with arms will of course take the oaths of allegiance on being admitted into the militia. The remainder must be disarmed and put on parole to remain at home, with the most solemn assurance that if they break their parole by committing any act of hostility, they shall instantly be hanged without any form of trial farther than proving the identity of the person.”
After being in Georgetown for ten days, Wemyss informed Cornwallis that the longer he remained in the region, the more he discovered “the disaffection of the people” and added “the motions of the rebells on the frontier will of course add to their audacity.” Cornwallis began to have his doubts about Wemyss’s mission to Georgetown. He informed the major, “there can be no hopes of peace and quiet untill we can advance, nor can you in the present situation of things do any good towards forming a militia at Georgetown. I cannot therefore approve of you making any longer stay there.” He ordered Wemyss to march his men to the High Hills of Santee.
Wemyss and the 63rd Regiment did not remain in their new position long. On August 16, the British army under Cornwallis defeated the American army under the command of Gen. Horatio Gates at Camden. In the wake of the American defeat, many Americans were taken prisoner. Under the escort of a small force of British and Provincial troops, 150 of those prisoners were marched to Charleston. At Thomas Sumter’s old home at Great Savannah near Nelson’s Ferry, Patriot partisans under the command of Francis Marion attacked the column as they camped for the night. The Patriots killed or captured twenty-two British troops and set the American prisoners free.
The Patriot victory at Nelson’s Ferry alarmed Cornwallis, raising concerns that his supply lines were vulnerable to attack. He ordered Wemyss to march the 63rd Regiment into the region between the Santee and Peedee rivers and sweep the area of enemy resistance. Wemyss led his men to Kingstree, where they were joined by Provincial troops and Tory militia. From Kingstree, they began their march through the Peedee toward Cheraw, systematically burning and pillaging the homes of suspected Patriot sympathizers.
Much of what is known of Wemyss’s raid comes from William Dobein James, who wrote a biography of Francis Marion entitled Swamp Fox: General Francis Marion And His Guerilla Fighters Of The American Revolution. James joined Marion’s militia at the age of fifteen and was the son of one of Marion’s most trusted subordinate officers, Maj. John James. William James experienced the wrath of Wemyss’s expedition firsthand. During the raid, British and Loyalist troops descended on the James family home. When Wemyss came to the home he was met by the wife of Major James. The British major told her that if her husband would come in and lay down his arms he would receive a pardon, to which Mrs. James informed him that she had no influence over her husband’s actions and that he was compelled to take part in the Patriot cause. Unsatisfied with Mrs. James’s reply, Wemyss had her and her children locked up in a room of the house for two and a half days.
Capt. John James, the oldest son of the major, was ordered into custody. He was captured during the fall of Charleston and paroled. The young captain was brought in to stand trial to determine whether he had broken the terms of his parole. If found guilty, he would hang. The slaves belonging to the James family were called as witnesses, but no evidence was presented against Captain James and he was released. Wemyss failed to lure Major James to his home and he was unable to find sufficient evidence to warrant the hanging of John James, but he displayed his wrath by ordering the James family home to be burned to the ground.
The torching of the home had such an impact on William James’s life that he mentioned it in the preface of his biography of Francis Marion and cites Wemyss’s actions as the reason he had not written the account of Marion’s exploits earlier. James wrote: “I felt an early inclination to record the events; but Major Wemyss burnt all my stock of paper, and my little classical library, in my father’s house; and, for two years and a half afterwards, I had not the common implements of writing or of reading.”
William James provided a vivid account of the destruction wrought by the British expedition into the region. “The country through which Wemyss had marched, for seventy miles in length, and at places for fifteen miles in width, exhibited one continued scene of desolation. On most of the plantations every house was burnt to the ground, the negroes were carried off, the inhabitants plundered, the stock, especially sheep, wantonly killed, and all provisions, which could be come at, destroyed.” James elaborated on Wemyss’s targeting of sheep. “Major Wemyss, in laying waste to the country, was particularly inimical to looms and sheep: no doubt that he might deprive the inhabitants of the means of clothing themselves. What sheep he did not kill for the use of his men, he ordered to be bayoneted.” Patriot homes were not the only structures to be put to the torch. Wemyss also ordered the burning of the Presbyterian church at Indiantown, which he claimed was a sedition shop.
As James’s account reveals, slaves were seized from plantations whose owners were suspected of supporting the Patriots. The action, however, was intended more for the purpose of confiscating rebel property than it was an act of emancipating enslaved people. On one occasion Wemyss granted Loyalist militia Col. William Mills “one hundred negroes,” which he referred to as “rebel property,” to indemnify Mills for the losses he had sustained by his attachment to His Majesty’s Government. Mills wrote a letter to Cornwallis and included a certificate issued by Wemyss to appropriate slaves. The Tory colonel claimed to have lost “fifty-seven negroes.” Cornwallis referred to the “gift” offered by Wemyss as a “princely donation” and stated that “whatever Colonel Mill’s merits may have been, we cannot yet afford those kind of presents.” He declared the offer null and void and left it to Lieutenant Colonel Balfour to award any small proportion that he thought proper.
During his raid, Wemyss ordered the hanging of at least one person, a ferryman named Adam Cusack. There are various spellings of Cusack’s name in different accounts. Cusack was believed to have been paroled at Charleston and was taken into custody for either refusing to ferry British officers across a creek or for firing at the slave of a Tory militia officer. Cusack’s wife and children pleaded for a pardon and prostrated themselves before Wemyss, who was mounted on horseback. James claims that the major would have ridden over them, had it not been for another British officer stopping him. James Wilson, a local doctor, attempted to intercede on Cusack’s behalf, but to no avail. The British carried out the execution. In return for interfering in the affair, Dr. Wilson’s home was burned, and his wife fled into North Carolina. Afterwards, Dr. Wilson joined Marion’s partisan band.
From Cheraw Court House Wemyss penned a letter to Cornwallis on September 20, informing the commanding general of the progress of his detachment. He did not attempt to hide the severity of his tactics from his commanding general. Wemyss informed Cornwallis that every inhabitant had been or was concerned in the rebellion. He reported that his troops burned and laid waste about fifty houses and plantations, who Wemyss said were guilty of breaking their paroles or oath of allegiance and taken up arms against the British. He also informed his commanding general that he had taken about twenty prisoners, one of whom he referred to as a notorious villain that he planned to execute the following day. The “notorious villain” that Wemyss referred to was Adam Cusack.
Upon learning the details of the expedition and the severity in which Wemyss had dealt with Patriot sympathizers, Cornwallis offered no criticism of the major for his tactics. To the contrary, Wemyss’s actions were not only sanctioned by Cornwallis, but encouraged by the commanding general. Cornwallis’s own correspondence reveals that he had, in fact, instructed Wemyss to deal with the Patriot supporters severely. In his letter of August 28, 1780, Cornwallis issued the following orders to Wemyss:
I would have you disarm in the most rigid manner all persons who cannot be depended on and punish the concealment of arms and ammunition with total demolition of the plantation. All those who were enrolled voluntarily in Colonel Mills’ militia, or by Lt. Colonel Gaillard, and afterwards joined the rebels must be instantly hanged up, unless you should seize a very great number, in which case you will please to select the properest objects of mercy. All who have either submitted themselves or have lived quietly at their plantations in an apparent acquiescence to the King’s Government, and have since joined in this second revolt, must have their property entirely taken from them or destroy’d and themselves be taken prisoners of war.
Cornwallis conveyed the same sentiments to his commanding officer in New York, Sir Henry Clinton. Cornwallis wrote that he had issued the following orders to Wemyss: “to disarm in the most rigid manner the country between Santee and Pedee and to punish severely all those who submitted or pretended to live peaceably under His Majesty’s Government since the reduction of Charlestown and have joined in this second revolt; and I ordered him to hang up all those militia men who were concerned in seizing their officers and capturing the sick of the 71st Regiment.” Cornwallis added, “I have myself ordered several militia men to be executed who had voluntarily enrolled themselves and borne arms with us and afterwards revolted to the enemy.”
Wemyss’s mission to the Peedee did not achieve the desired objectives. Most importantly, he failed to eliminate Francis Marion’s partisan force. Upon learning of the advancing column from Kingstree and another from Georgetown, Marion marched his small force across the border into North Carolina to seek temporary refuge. Wemyss also failed to establish an effective Loyalist militia to maintain British authority in the region, nor did his brutal tactics subdue the population. Many of those who were subject to the destruction wrought upon them, decided to take a more active role in the resistance. New volunteers wandered into Marion’s camp, determined to join the militia.
Following the raid through the Cheraws, Cornwallis ordered Major Wemyss to march the 63rd Regiment to Broad river to patrol both sides of the bank and protect the mills upon which the British heavily relied. While carrying out his latest assignment, Wemyss received information from a local Tory named Sealy that Thomas Sumter had camped his troops at Moore’s Mill, about twenty-five miles away from the British encampment. The major met with Cornwallis to brief him on the intelligence he had received and confidently proposed a plan to surprise and rout Sumter. Eager at the opportunity to defeat such an elusive foe, Cornwallis approved the major’s plan to attack Sumter’s camp at daybreak on November 9. Wemyss marched the 63rd Regiment out of camp, along with forty dragoons of the British Legion that Cornwallis had committed for support. He assigned Sealy and five dragoons the job of finding and slaying Sumter. During the march Wemyss learned that Sumter had moved his camp to Fishdam Ford, about five miles from Moore’s Mill.
The British located Sumter’s camp much sooner than they had planned. Wemyss planned to attack the Americans at daybreak but feared that his troops would be discovered by enemy patrols if he waited until dawn. Around 1:00 a.m. he led the dragoons on a charge into the camp, followed by the men of the 63rd Regiment. Sumter’s men left their campfires burning, which illuminated the attacking British force. The few alert Patriot sentries fired a volley and Wemyss tumbled from his saddle, having been struck in the arm and knee. Meanwhile, a partially clad Sumter barely escaped from his tent, as Sealy and his assassins rushed in.
With Wemyss incapacitated by his wounds, command of the British troops fell to a very young officer who did not know the ground or the major’s plans. He left Major Wemyss and about twenty wounded men under a flag of truce and retreated. According to William James, when Wemyss was captured he had a list of homes that he had ordered burned in Williamsborough and Peedee, which he nervously presented to Sumter and pleaded for protection from the militia. According to other accounts, Sumter read the list and tossed it into the fire without divulging the contents to his men.
In a letter to Lieutenant Colonel Balfour following the skirmish, Cornwallis sarcastically remarked that he feared Wemyss forgot he was an infantry soldier, as he had ridden headlong into the American camp. He also expressed his hope to get the wounded major exchanged and noted that although “he was in the late instance a mad trooper, he is certainly in the main a sensible and useful officer.”
Following his capture, Major Wemyss was paroled and returned to Charleston, before sailing for New York. Wemyss returned to England in 1781. The following year Wemyss returned to New York and then to Charleston, where he served as deputy adjutant general to Gen. Alexander Leslie. In his new role, Wemyss met with his American counterpart to negotiate the conditions of the exchange of prisoners. Following the British evacuation of Charleston, Wemyss returned to New York and then to England once again. After his resignation from the British Army as a lieutenant colonel, Wemyss retired to his native Scotland. A few years later he emigrated to the United States with his second wife and settled on a farm on Long Island, where he died in 1833.
Harrington to Turnbull, 12th November 1780. Ian Saberton, Editor, The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in The Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War. Volume III. (East Sussex. Naval and Military Press, 2010), 162.
Wemyss to Cornwallis, 11th July 1780. Ian Saberton, Editor, The Cornwallis Papers The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in The Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War. Volume I. (East Sussex. Naval and Military Press, 2010), 304.
Wemyss to Cornwallis, 20th September 1780. Ian Saberton, Editor. The Cornwallis Papers The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in The Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War. Volume II. (East Sussex. The Naval and Military Press. 2010), 215.
General Alexander Leslie to General Nathanael Greene, 18 September 1782, Dennis M. Conrad, editor, The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. Volume XI, 7 April–30 September 1782 (Chapel Hill, NC and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2000) 672.